The Renaissance Club of Sun City Carolina Lakes (SCCL) staged its 13th annual Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Birthday celebration Monday, Jan. 16, to a standing-room-only crowd at The Lodge in Sun City.
Over the years, the event has evolved from a simple ceremony to a complicated, informative and inspiring theatrical production reenacting events leading to King’s recognition as one of the great American leaders of the 20th century.
This year’s production was titled “You Are There: The Making of a Holiday,” and described the many challenges against naming a national holiday in King’s honor. The story was told in the manner of Walter Cronkite’s famous television show, “You Are There,” with scripts read by actors from the club describing the 15-year struggle to honor King with a national holiday to be celebrated on his birthday.
In addition to the actors, the emotional story was expressed musically by vocalist Francine Mills with accompanist Carole Bell. Mills’ dramatic voice with its impressive range engaged the audience in an unforgettable performance.
The MLK holiday idea was first introduced by Congressman John Conyers of Michigan, four days after King was assassinated in 1968. But the idea of honoring King for his courage, leadership and intellect was opposed by many in the Southern states.
In the SCCL production, Conyers, played by Jerry Smith, is “interviewed” by television host Slade Gooden, played by Sally Wallerstein.
The program highlighted remarks made by Sen. Jesse Helms of North Carolina, played by Steve Decker, in his attempt to filibuster the passage of the bill establishing a national holiday. Warren Cottingham gave Ted Kennedy’s impassioned response.
The holiday was officially signed into law by President Ronald Reagan in 1983, but the first celebration did not occur until 1985.
Other actors and narrators who helped tell the living history story were Pat Bailey, Shirley Berkeley, Ron Plummer, Susan Wallerstein, Connie Clark Jacqueline Massey and Darlene Cottingham. Vincent Berkeley served as emcee and Grace Smith provided blessings for the occasion.
The production staff, which worked for over six months to create and present the show, included artistic director Bill Curtis, director Octavia Swindell, production director Jack Haubach, visual and props manager Connie Clark, script editor Anne Lauher and musical consultant Carole Bell.
Renaissance Club President Robert Massey and Ron Plummer, coordinator and technical director, gave closing remarks and recognized the cast and crew, including Charles Ellerbe, who played King in previous years, but had serious health issues make it impossible this year.
Following the performance, refreshments were served by a team of volunteers coordinated by Vilma Godbolt. Other Renaissance members helped as greeters, ushers and with other support. The group also collected donations for the food bank.
The first Renaissance Club celebration of King’s birthday was held in 2011, in the Lake House, with fewer than 100 people in attendance. The event has since grown and developed into a major community event that always informs, celebrates and inspires with the words and ideas of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.